The Hidden Work of Housewives

What Didn't Get Done, © amomnextdoor, 2014

What Didn’t Get Done, © amomnextdoor, 2014

Periodically Mr. Banks says to me, “I just don’t know what you DO all day.” He can’t understand how he could possibly come home from a day at the office to find unwashed dishes, rumpled laundry, strewn toys, and cranky kids. As he recently pointed out, “You have fifteen hours in a day! How can you not have enough time?”

Hmmm. Well—setting aside that fifteen hours dedicated to house and home would take me from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. with no meals or tea breaks (and certainly no writing time)—how to describe the intensity of day after day with children to someone who’s never done it himself? I’m not sure it’s possible. But for my own gratification, for my own sense of self-worth, I found myself keeping track one summer’s day, of all that I did with my time.

A day with children is a day spent teaching and learning. Some things I teach them directly, some by expectation, some through modeling, and some by opportunity. All of it I teach with as much deliberation and thoughtfulness as this mama can. I find being present with my children in such a way both deeply draining and relentlessly rewarding. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Things I taught my children today:

  • How to exercise daily
  • How to commit to a goal and follow through
  • How to be patient
  • How to contribute to the family
  • How to play independently
  • How to play together
  • How to brush teeth properly
  • How to clean up after brushing teeth
  • How to give privacy to people using the bathroom
  • How to pursue one’s passions and interests
  • How to sew: how to plan a project, use pins, thread a needle, cut a thread, make a knot, make a whip stitch
  • How to share underlying feelings
  • How to listen deeply
  • How to take responsibility for one’s mistakes
  • How to be married
  • How to take time for oneself
  • How to give others space
  • How to respond to an invitation to connect
  • How to speak one’s mind
  • How to keep a house organized
  • How to tidy
  • How to reuse
  • How to recycle
  • How to roll out the garbage cans for collection day
  • How to core strawberries
  • How to break eggs
  • How to cook an omelet
  • How to load the dishwasher
  • How to close a sliding car door safely
  • How to treat clerks and service workers
  • How to behave at the checkout stand
  • The value of a dollar
  • How to negotiate
  • How to wait
  • How to notice the world around
  • How to give and receive love and affection
  • How to be an audience
  • How to hold back
  • How to laugh
  • How to be silly
  • How to create
  • How to imagine
  • How to have fun
  • How to love

That gets us to about lunchtime. I guess the laundry will have to wait until the afternoon.

What Happened Instead, © amomnextdoor, 2014

What Happened Instead, © amomnextdoor, 2014

For You, Mom

 

Mother's Day Nosegay, ©amomnextdoor, 2014

Mother’s Day Nosegay, ©amomnextdoor, 2014

I have spent the past four Mothers’ Days alone with my children, while Mr. Banks was away on business. Every year, I have wondered if he would remember what day it was, following a foreign calendar all the way across the world. Every year, I have stepped into the bountiful garden we have grown together, and seen the flowers he had already given me. So I would pick myself a Mother’s Day bouquet, and then send those flowers to you, honored mothers of my life. At some point later in the day, the doorbell would ring, and Mr. Banks would deliver his love for me, from all the way across the world, in yet another fragrant extravagance of flowers.

California is facing a serious drought this year. We ended winter with just 5% of our usual annual rainfall, and by the end of spring had only edged up to 30%. We have decided not to water our garden this year. Out here in the valley, our garden needs irrigation from Spring to Fall Equinox in order to truly thrive. We’ve had just enough rainfall to bring out the blooms and the grass. Now we get to watch everything die. It makes spring flowers that much more precious, when we’re unable to artificially extend the growing season with imported water.

I noticed the Mother’s Day bouquet really changed in character this year. Usually I end up with armfuls of giant blooms, and still have flowers left in the garden to enjoy. This year harvested every single stem, and ended up with this little nosegay. The flowers are different, too. Instead of roses and tulips and lilies, I’m getting the self-seeders–forget-me-nots and bachelor’s buttons and carnations–and the hardy perennials. It will be interesting to let our garden go back to what it was meant to be, to start over on the canvas nature intended for this region. To tend my little corner of climate change. And still find flowers, for you, for Mother’s Day.

…and the Water Taketh Away

St. Vrain River at peace, © amomnextdoor, 2013

St. Vrain River at peace, © amomnextdoor, 2013

You never think it will happen to your family. And then it does.

Last Thursday, my 65-year old mom and 86-year old grandma were evacuated by bucket loader from their riverside home in Lyons, CO. Sirens began sounding from the town at 2 a.m. that morning, but on the far side of the river my mom and grandma could hear nothing over the roaring river. They slept through the early calls for evacuation.

At 5:30 a.m. the housekeeper called, awakening my mother. The house was already surrounded by water, the river lapping at the underside of the porches. Several calls to 911 later, they were still in the house. Since the water had not yet entered, no plans for evacuation were made. A bit later the head of a local construction company called to check on them. Soon after, the head of the Department of Publics work arrived with his bucket loader. With the help of three water rescue workers, they lifted my grandmother into the muddy bucket of that machine. By that time the water was already up to the doorknob of my grandfather’s old shop. With the cell phone tower down, it was hours before we heard from my mother that they were safe. Many people are still missing. Many families have still not heard from their loved ones.

By Friday the flooding had gotten so bad that the entire town of approximately 2,000 people–the place where I spent all my summers growing up–had to be evacuated.

My mom and grandma spent one night in the evacuation center at Lyons Elementary School,

English: I took photo with Canon camera in Lyo...

where my grandfather taught for many years, and another day and night at LifeBridge Church in Longmont, before they were ready to move again. Now safely situated with my brother and sister-in-law, they wait.

The town of Lyons is working hard to restore power, sewage and water to its residents. Meanwhile, displaced townsfolk wait in lines for limited passes to get back to their properties: to assess the damage, gather their valuables, and leave without flushing a single toilet for fear of overloading Lyons’ tenuous system. Not even yet enough time to grieve.

On Friday, more than a week of weather after the initial flooding, my mom and brother will finally get to see what mark the river has left on the home my grandparents built, the home that brought my entire family together in the summers, for homemade ice cream and river tubing, horseshoes and dominoes and stories around the kitchen table.

I don’t usually blog about the news, but this time the news really hit home.

If you want to help, please look into the donation campaigns below. Please consider posting links to your other social media. This beautiful town and its residents will need all the help they can get to rebuild.

Main Street, Lyons, CO.  © amomnextdoor, 2011

Main Street, Lyons, CO. © amomnextdoor, 2011

DONATE HERE to the Lyons Community Foundation/Flood Relief, part of the Boulder Community Foundation. Click the green Donate Now button and be sure to designate Lyons Community Foundation/Flood Relief from the drop-down menu to direct your donation to the town and people of Lyons.

Or, DONATE HERE for the indiegogo campaign started by Lyons H.S. graduates collecting funds on behalf of the Lyons Community Foundation/Flood Relief.

Or consider putting one of these on the counter at work:

Photo by Jen La Follette/Ross Lehmkuhler

Photo by Jen La Follette/Ross Lehmkuhler

Related articles

Bite From the Magic Apple

Apple with a bite taken out of it.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

A Recipe for Parenting Panache

Exhausted. Cranky. Worn down, worn out, used up.

Kids at the table bossy and ungrateful, impolite and obnoxious.

The Birthday Girl and Agent 006 are already snarling at each other over the breakfast cereal. I am parenting alone, again, unloading the dishwasher and delivering delayed eggs to the table. I have twice already invoked my ironclad rule of home dining—only polite and grateful children permitted at my table—and sent the children to their room for a time out. Now they are back; they don’t realize it is their father’s absence that is making them feel grumpy and out of sorts. They think it is my fault. I need an ally. Out of desperation, I start grumbling to the apple in my hand. Continue reading

Disneyland for the Fainthearted

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

We have clearly failed as American parents. Our first family trip to Disneyland must honestly be registered as a flop. Maybe it’s because we have supremely sensitive children, who just really don’t go in for the whole “sharks-in-the-water” vibe. Maybe it’s because my Fictional Husband (FH) hates crowds, hot dogs, popcorn, roller coasters and noise. But most likely it’s my fault, my own deeply divided nature. I wore the princess dresses my father brought back from his trips abroad, took ballet, and avidly watched the Disney shorts of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan that he screened on his old reel-to-reel in the downstairs den. But I also played football and basketball with my brothers, and didn’t fail to notice that Disney princesses—with the notable exception of Cinderella—are almost always pictured without feet. So I guess it’s no surprise that my under-inoculated family didn’t jump eagerly into the “Happiest Place on Earth” and emerge with the requisite contented smiles plastered on their faces. Continue reading

A Mother’s Day

DSC_0011

11:00 p.m., Mother’s Day Eve–I creep into my children’s bedroom to take my son’s temperature as he sleeps. He tosses his head irritably away from the thermometer, but I still get a read. 101.7, down from 102.5. According to Tripit my Fictional Husband is about to board a preposterously tiny plane from Frankfurt to Dusseldorf, so it’s down to me if the fever spikes. Still, I think it’s safe for me to go to sleep at last.

4:00 a.m., Mother’s Day–Dink dink dink dink thunk thunk thunk thunk thunk. The Birthday Girl comes scattering into my room, followed closely by her big brother. We all cuddle for a little bit in the big bed, then I lead & carry them back to their beds. I know I’m going to need my sleep for 1-2 sick children, wide awake in just a few more hours. I tuck them in and lay with my hot boy until he falls back asleep.

(I find out later that he had woken up scared in the middle of the night, crying. Me sound asleep at the other end of the house. “What did you do?” I ask. “I called for my sister. She woke up and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told her I was scared to go through the dark house. She said, ‘Come on, I’ll take you.'” And so the three-year old led the six-year old safely through the frightful night.)

6:00 a.m. The Birthday Girl totters into my bedroom, crawls up in bed with me, and falls promptly back to sleep. She’s too tired from night duty to even cuddle.

6:45 a.m. Agent 006 is back. He comes in loud, in his hands a homemade card. I’m so touched I just hold it and gaze at him, stroking his arm, now thankfully a bit cooler. Finally he says, “Cards open, you know!” so I sheepishly open the card. It’s double-layered, one page from my son and the other from my daughter, facilitated by the babysitter who’s been taking care of our kids since she was twelve and is going off to college at the end of the summer.

We read the card together, Agent 006 lying next to me for the barest minute. Then he leaps out of bed and my eyes drift closed again. I dream to the metallic clatter and bang of vigorous kitchen activity. A short while later, he comes back in, two bowls sliding precariously on the cookie tray he’s carrying. In one bowl are washed cherry tomatoes. The other bowl has a grapefruit, crookedly sawed in half, each triangle of fruit carefully loosened with the grapefruit knife.

Over a three-way breakfast he narrates making breakfast for me, how he knew I wasn’t eating wheat so he couldn’t make toast, and he couldn’t toast it anyway since he’s not allowed to use anything that makes heat. I love hearing the rambling story of how he arrived at grapefruit–which he could only cut with the grapefruit knife, since he’s not allowed to use other knives unsupervised–and cherry tomatoes for breakfast. Sweetest of all he said,
“At first I thought my fever would ruin Mother’s Day for me because then the mom would have to take care of the kid and it’s supposed to be the other way around, and Mother’s Day only happens once a year! But I got rid of it.”

8:30 a.m. Breakfast entertainment over, facing a long Sunday with a still slightly feverish boy and energetic little girl. Grass is still wet outside, so I start by showing the kids selected shorts from the Ironman movies, just the lab scenes where Tony Stark is inventing or trying out his new suits.

9:30 a.m. Run the hose to the sandbox, where Agent 006 constructs a river and dam in spite of his sister’s interference. I finally get her productively engaged at the outdoor easel. She starts with blue and yellow, and suddenly shouts, “Green!” Her brother overheats, so I set him up inside with a bath and the audiobook The Cricket in Times Square, which we got from the library.

11:30 a.m. Sister joins brother in the bath, mostly for the pleasure of splashing or talking over the story.

11:45 a.m. Two children crying in the bathroom. Agent 006 is cold and miserable. The Birthday Girl is rejected and miserable. Really, they’re both just hungry and I’m late with lunch, instead arranging stems in the annual Mother’s Day garden bouquet.

© amomnextdoor, 2013

© amomnextdoor, 2013

12:00 p.m. Kids gobbling the carrots, hummus, olives and cucumbers I have slapped on their plates while I finish boiling water for pesto tortellini. They are quiet. We are officially halfway through the day.

1:00 p.m. I tuck the Birthday Girl into her bed and set  Agent 006 up on the couch with plenty of blankets and books, hoping that in separate rooms they might both actually sleep. I am the only one who manages to nap, a refreshing 45 minutes of silence in the house–the outer limit of my children’s capacity to control their need to be with me every instant of the day. But their long experience with awakening Tired Grumpy Mama prematurely has actually taught them to enjoy having some down time to themselves, so “Rest Time” is now officially established for the summer and for ever.

3:00 p.m. More movie time. Yep. Again. This time they watch by themselves while I get the audiofile of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban set up on my iPhone, since I’ll no doubt have Agent 006 home from school with me tomorrow, and Cricket will be done by 9:51 a.m. Normally a work day for me, but maybe the sitter can watch both kids here while I barricade myself in the studio to get some needed revisions done on my manuscript.

4:00 Sitter cancels. She’s afraid of fevers.

4:01 We all watch a consolation movie together, Monsters vs. Aliens. I have not previewed this movie, and would prefer that my children had never seen agents entering a secure facility via “butt scan,” but…the homemade popcorn is good.

5:10 We all pile in the car to go get take-out Indian. I have a coupon–the curry will last for days of no cooking. FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, both my children put on their shoes and are waiting by the door when I ask them to get ready. I am floored. Cabin fever?

6:30 Back outside after dinner. Agent 006 falling apart and Birthday Girl having a tantrum. Lack of naps is showing all around. I bring the boy inside and tuck him into bed. Tantrum continues outside.

6:32 Sudden silence.

6:33 “Mama?” from outside.

6:33 Two large soft poops on patio by easel. I lead a dismayed and distressed three-year old inside to the potty.

6:35 Both children brushing their teeth, in bed.

7:00 Agent 006 laments his day as I snuggle with him in bed. “That was my worst Mother’s Day ever! We couldn’t do anything fun because I was sick.” “Well, I had fun,” I tell him. “Really? What made it fun for you?” he asks, genuinely surprised and relieved. “I think it was fun because we all just did whatever we needed to do in that moment.” My son feels the truth of this in his body, which relaxes against mine. I kiss his brow and climb into bed with the Birthday Girl. She hooks her hand around my bicep to draw me closer. I feel her eyelashes on my collarbone. She rubs her feet together against my shins, just the way I rub my own feet together to soothe myself to sleep. (Note to self: Cut children’s toenails tomorrow.) “I love you,” I whisper. “I love you, too,” she whispers back. “Happy birthday.”

It has been a good day.

 

This Happens to Me Every Year

Mother's Day flowers for you, in case everyone else forgot... ©amomnextdoor, 2012

Mother’s Day flowers for you, in case everyone else forgot… ©amomnextdoor, 2012

Once again, alone on Mother’s Day. Alone with my two young children, that is. My Fictional Husband (FH) has gallivanted off to Europe for business, and just about now is probably stepping bleary-eyed and crick-backed from one plane to another. My son went to bed with a fever of 102.5, and we three–the Birthday Girl, Agent 006 and I–are home alone together all day tomorrow, for Mother’s Day.

My FH kept asking me what I wanted for Mother’s Day and I confess I was unable to come up with a good answer. Am I supposed to want to glory in my motherhood, the fevered whining and competitive bids for negative attention from little sister? Or am I supposed to want a break from it all, all the everything I normally carry? And if that’s what I want, who’s going to give it to me?

I’ll settle for a healing full night’s sleep and maybe a side of epiphany. Since I’m too busy momming to come up with anything new for this year’s Hallmark Moment, I’ll have to settle for regurgitating past miracles of wisdom. I write to remember what I know, and this is all I’ve got so far–some of my favorite posts about being a mom, in case you haven’t had a chance to see them yet:

Lao-Tzu Was Never a Mother

Rage, or the Distress Call of the Modern Mother

Ten Things She Can Do For Herself: Apologize (Less)

or simply, The List

Two and the Double Negative

Me! Too!

The Smile That Saves

The Mother’s Day That Didn’t Happen, and the One That Did

For all you moms out there, Happy Mother’s Day! If you’ve got a favorite post about being a mom on your blog or someone else’s, please post a link in the comments below. I’m probably going to need it.

Imaginary Conversations With My Fictional Husband

A room of my very own, in the beginning     © amomnextdoor

A room of my very own, in the beginning © amomnextdoor

I think he said to me once, As long as you can cover the cost of childcare.

Another time he referred to my writing as a “hobby,” but a severe weather system moved in after that, and the thunderstorm that followed obliterated the word entirely from his vocabulary, if not his thoughts. I am the stay-at-home mom of two children under seven—I HAVE no hobbies. If I am writing, it is a necessary act. But how to get him to understand that—this man who reads neither packages nor instructions nor street signs? A steady diet of work emails, the New York Times and the occasional Lee Child bestseller does not exactly constitute a rich and vibrant literary life, from which to judge my scribblings.

But why have they come up for judgment at all? Another time, when a last minute business trip meant I wouldn’t be able to attend my writing group, I told him that I didn’t want my career to always come second to his when making decisions about our time and priorities, just because I earn less money than he does (in fact, at this point in my writing career, no money at all). He conceded the point, but objected to my use of the word “career.” A career denotes a salary, set responsibilities, a defined position in some organization. What you have, he said, is a business. Much as I hate the term, I conceded his point.

So now I am working on a business plan. And the first question that rises in me, like hot magma or the fury of Yansá, is this: why is it my job to cover the cost of childcare? When we married, I was working full time; my husband was jobless and getting his MBA. We paid for his education. Our child was born. I gave up my teaching career and salary, and instead worked full time from home taking care of our child, our house, and him, while he started two businesses. I was not compensated financially for this work. He did not claim the cost of childcare as a business expense.

(A mild digression, since I fear you may be asking, Who is this guy, anyway? I actually have some trouble naming this character–my husband–so central to my life. Many mommy blogs refer to a “DH”, or Dear Husband, but I am put off by the subtle implication of sarcasm in the word “Dear.” Especially since the term most often comes into play when referencing said character’s propensity to throw his dirty socks into the laundry hamper inside out, or put the can opener away in the wrong place. My personal nickname for my husband is the Big Man, because he measures in at a broad-shouldered 6’3”, can carry anything, takes good care of me, and scares the cat. But “The Big Man” has Orwellian overtones and an unfortunate acronym. I could call him more affectionately my BM, and that would be appropriate in so many ways, perfectly capturing the occasional constipation and effort of marriage, but new readers of my blog would definitely get the wrong idea.

I’d settle for Fictional Husband, FH for short, but that might lead some people to question whether this man—who dedicates his life to building wealth for his family, loving his children, and pleasing his wife—actually exists. I really do have a husband, it’s not just a blogosphere fantasy, but I guess it turns out that I’m also a bit of a bigamist. I’ve taken a second husband here in these pages and posts, an absolutely essential member of our family. My Fictional Husband, who does not, actually, exist or say and do all the things I report here, takes the rap for the man I love and married first. My FH is a necessary construct, because this society that underpays its women, undervalues its children, fails to protect and nourish its most disadvantaged members, has banned Art from its soul to worship Money instead—this society comes down pretty hard on both of us sometimes, and I won’t let that confine me, hurt him, or come between me and the man I love. So my Fictional Husband steps forward here in these posts to take up that burden for both of us.)

But back to money. Because that’s what all this really comes down to: time is money, my time in particular, more valuable than ANY segment of our society ever lets on. How do I carve out and protect time for my writing life, if I am not making money from my writing? How can I legitimately claim this as a valuable use of my time, when there are dishes to be done, bandaids to administer, stressed-out husbands to soothe?

Pat Schneider, founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists movement, gave a talk recently at the Pacific School of Religion about her life’s work and most recent book, How the Light Gets In. She spoke passionately about our culture’s tendency to define as writers only those who have had access to education (and money)—writers with MFA degrees, writers on this list or that list, writers with prizes and incomes and bestsellers. In her book Writing Alone and With Others, she suggests that “Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot–it must not, for the sake of the human community–be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

So many voices are silenced when we believe that to be a writer we must sell our work. There is value in a drawerful of scrawled poems, in a stack of brown journals with black cloth binding, in the lists layered on a kitchen door, in the bits and pieces of blogs. And as women who write, we MUST believe that this activity–this art–is worth our time. We must tell that story–we must sell that story–to the men we marry, the men on the committee for the National Endowment for the Arts, the men in the legislature who decide how much money to spend on supporting the arts in our society, and to the children who want their diaper changed, or help with their homework, or another glass of water.

Ursula Le Guin writes in her essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” (Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989) that “the artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbation has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility both to her art and to her dependent children…has undertaken a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible….the difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books, is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”

I am lucky in my husbands, Fictional and real. They have worked hard to overcome the training they’ve received at the hands of our society, “the spite that so often a man is allowed to hold, trained to hold, against anything a woman does that’s not done in his service, for him, to feed his body, his comfort, his kids.” (Le Guin, 1989) Like many artists, I expect “to work against the total, rational indifference of everybody else” in the world, but at least I do not have to work against a “daily, personal, vengeful resistance.” (Le Guin, 1989) I have a husband who recognizes that I am a writer, and that writers must write. He has built for me a room of my own. There may be days when he wonders what I have done with my time, why the rice is burnt and the laundry festering in baskets. But like Le Guin’s husband, he brings to our marriage “an assumption of mutual aid,” (Le Guin, 1989) which daily brings to life the epigraph we chose for our wedding invitations:

“And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone”

Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers

To my Fictional Husband, and the real man who stands behind him, to all you stay-at-home moms and dads who managed to post to your blog today, to the art that feeds us and sustains us, that challenges and defines us, I dedicate this moment of my time.

Thank you for reading, for this moment of your time.

Spring Break Blues

Or, Didn’t Children Used to Keep Themselves Busy?DSC_0150

This is my third time through elementary school. I went through myself as a child, then I taught for ten years, and now I’m back in first grade again, as the parent of a first grader. I’m pleased by the promotion to first grade, because it means I’ve been at this elementary-school-parenting thing for two years now, and for me the second time around at anything is always better than the first.

At least this time I knew enough to be afraid of Spring Break. See, I’m an 80% stay-at-home mom. Eighty percent of the time, I can pretty much be and do whatever my kids and family and home need from me. And eighty percent of the time, being with my kids at home is just what I need and want, too. It’s the other twenty percent we all have to watch out for. If we’re lucky, I’ve managed to time my childcare and work just right, to coincide with those days when I really shouldn’t be anywhere near children, especially not my own. Continue reading

006, Secret Agent

This could be my son in a few years...Photo credit: Cynthia Smoot

This could be my son in a few years…
Photo credit: Cynthia Smoot

Age six has been a miracle for my son and me. If you’ve read about my daughter, the Birthday Girl, turning Three, you already know that

1) my son was Three for two years, and

2) I suck at Three.

Really. I probably wasn’t very good at it when I was Three. In fact, the only story I have of me at Three took place almost exactly 38 years ago, just before Easter. We had already decorated eggs, and I came inside from the front yard looking for my mom.

“If I die, will my Easter eggs go to heaven with me?” I wanted to know. It took her a while to figure out that the reason I had this burning question was because I had just eaten some mushrooms as a kind of morbid experiment. There–now you know all about age Three.

My son had a legitimate claim to his prolonged exploration of Three. I had the audacity to be enormously pregnant or nursing his new baby sister for most of his original age Three, so he quite sensibly stayed Three until I had time to pay proper attention to it. Continue reading